Caretaker pleads guilty to murder

Peggy "Peg" Sinclair

WINCHESTER — A Berryille woman accused of killing a woman in her care pleaded guilty to an amended murder charge in Frederick County Circuit Court Thursday.

The defendant, Frances Moss-Hopkins, 56, entered an Alford plea in an agreement that changed the offense from first-degree to second-degree murder. The plea agreement will also dismiss at sentencing the other two charges Moss-Hopkins was facing: concealing and willfully defiling a dead body in the June 2016 death of 85-year-old Lake Frederick resident Peg Sinclair. Circuit Judge N. Randolph Bryant accepted the agreement.

An Alford plea refers to a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford, and essentially is not an admission of guilt, but rather an acknowledgement that it is in the defendant’s best interest to plead guilty given the evidence against her.

It is also done to receive the benefit of a lower sentence offered. While the plea agreement did not include a sentencing recommendation, a second-degree murder charge carries a lighter sentence than a first-degree murder charge or the two other felonies Moss-Hopkins was facing.

Tim Coyne, the public defender appointed to represent Moss-Hopkins, told the court that an Alford plea was agreed upon because Moss-Hopkins has a mental disability in which she has difficulty recollecting certain events, and that she still cannot remember exactly what happened during the night of the murder.

Frances Moss-Hopkins

The courtroom had been relatively noisy during the morning’s proceedings, but fell silent during the Moss-Hopikins’ hearing, especially when Commonwealth’s Attorney Ross Spicer read the evidence that the prosecution would have presented had the case gone to trial.

Sinclair’s daughter had hired Moss-Hopkins to help care for her mother, and had seen her mother in their shared home before leaving for work early in the morning on June 17. When she returned from work, Moss-Hopkins told her that Sinclair was sleeping in her room.

When Sinclair’s daughter woke in the middle of the night to get water, she found a 13-page note from Moss-Hopkins saying that she had to use a lot of bleach to clean up because Sinclair had soiled her bed sheets and cut her hand while eating an apple.

The prosecution believes that Sinclair, who was exhibiting some signs of dementia at the time, had thrown the soiled sheets onto Moss-Hopkins during some sort of fit, and Moss-Hopkins had told the same thing to some people incarcerated with her, and said she couldn’t remember what happened after that.

It was determined that Sinclair had been killed by blunt force trauma, and her body was dismembered to fit in Moss-Hopkins’ car. Her body was hidden in a remote location along U.S. Route 50 in West Virginia. Moss-Hopkins told investigators that, “something bad happened,” and took them to the site where she hid the body. There investigators recovered a burned saw and a burned hammer that authorities determined was the murder weapon.

Investigators determined that Moss-Hopkins killed Sinclair in her home, as the search warrant details finding blood in the home. There was also DNA evidence proving that blood in Moss-Hopkins’ car matched Sinclair’s.

Moss-Hopkins was solemn and quiet as she answered the judge’s questions about giving her plea freely and willingly.

Sinclair’s daughter and granddaughter were in the courtroom during Thursday’s hearing, and both expressed their approval of the plea agreement. Bryant offered the family his sympathies on behalf of the court, saying that he feels both the prosecution and the defense worked to see justice served in the agreement.

The maximum sentence for second-degree murder is 40 years imprisonment. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Frederick County Circuit Court.

Contact staff writer Briahnna Brown at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or bbrown@nvdaily.com